While City College of San Francisco prepares to receive a team of evaluators who will decide if the college keeps its accreditation and stays open, the impact of what’s at stake has spread beyond the campus, bringing into sharper focus a push for higher standards at community colleges.

“If CCSF goes down, then accrediting issues will become a very big national debate,” said Patrick McCallum, president of the College Brain Trust, a Sacramento-based consulting firm whose clients include some of the state’s largest community college districts, but does not represent City College of San Francisco. “It’s going to be the shot heard around the country with enormous consequences, not just for the students and staff of City College. There are a lot of colleges we work with that are very nervous about that.”

"Accreditation is under a large magnifying glass," said Robert Agrella, the special trustee overseeing City College of San Francisco's efforts to retain its accreditation. Source:  City College of San Francisco.  (Click to enlarge).

“Accreditation is under a large magnifying glass,” said Robert Agrella, the special trustee overseeing City College of San Francisco’s efforts to retain its accreditation. Credit: City College of San Francisco. (Click to enlarge).

Faced with a number of severe fiscal, structural and governance problems – some of them dating back to a 2006 accreditation review – City College was placed on “show cause” status in July by the regional accrediting commission. A “show cause” order is the most severe sanction the commission can hand out, short of yanking a college’s accreditation – which is what the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) could do at its next meeting in June if it determines that City College hasn’t fixed its problems. Such a move would close City College and require neighboring districts to take over management of the college and its academic programs in order to continue serving the students.

City College isn’t alone on “show cause” status. At its meeting in January, the accrediting commission imposed the sanction on the College of the Sequoias and at the same time removed College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College from the “show cause” list. But with more than 90,000 students and nine campuses throughout San Francisco, City College is the largest community college in the state and is among the largest two-year colleges in the nation to face having its accreditation withdrawn.

“The impact around the state is that the other colleges would realize that all colleges, regardless of size, are subject to compliance with those standards,” said José Ortiz, chancellor of the Oakland-based Peralta Community College District. All four of the district’s colleges are on a “warning” status from the commission, the least-severe sanction.

Accreditation is essentially an assurance that a campus is operating under best practices and meeting standards for high-quality instruction; providing adequate support services, such as counseling; demonstrating strong fiscal management; and employing sound governance and decision making, all designed to provide a strong education that enables students to transfer or get good-paying jobs.

Ortiz said in the 22 years since he came to California, he’s seen a significant shift in the accreditation process going from commissions being satisfied if colleges were making progress toward meeting the standards to aggressively requiring them to have met the standards. He said the push is coming from the federal government.

Pressure from above

From the Oval Office to Congress, momentum is building to raise standards for community colleges and, as EdSource Today has reported, to place regional accrediting commissions themselves under federal scrutiny for not being tough enough with colleges that are out of compliance.

Coverage area for the six regional accreditation commissions in the United States.  Source:  Doctoral Dissertation of Nathan Tharp via the California Postsecondary Education Commission. (click to enlarge).

Coverage area for the six regional accreditation commissions in the United States. Credit: Doctoral Dissertation of Nathan Tharp via the California Postsecondary Education Commission. (Click to enlarge)

In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama unveiled a new college scorecard and made it clear that, with the billions of dollars in tax credits, grants and loans the federal government has put into higher education, colleges ought to be judged “based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” Separately, the president has called for 5 million more community college graduates by 2020.

Between 2008 and 2012, in preparation for this year’s scheduled reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), created the CHEA Initiative, and held dozens of meetings with colleges, regional accrediting commissions and students on recommendations for improving accreditation.

During that same time, writes CHEA President Judith Eaton, Congress began holding hearings and introducing legislation that sought to create more federal oversight on such academic issues as credit hours and credit transfer, areas that had been considered the domain of local campuses’ faculty senates and administrators.

In the CHEA Initiative Final Report, published last November, Eaton wrote that through these actions the U.S. Department of Education “has asserted authority over accreditation similar to that of a ministry of education in other countries.”

The report warns that these actions threaten the independence of the accreditation process and academic sovereignty of colleges and universities. “CHEA heard repeatedly, throughout the Initiative discussion, that colleges, universities and accrediting organizations were deeply concerned about this development.”

Robert Agrella, the special trustee hired to oversee City College’s efforts to save its accreditation, said discussions began during President George W. Bush’s administration about creating national accrediting standards and that forced the regional commissions to be more vigilant.

“I don’t want to say that accrediting used to be loose, but things are looked at much more carefully now,” he said. “Accreditation is under a pretty large magnifying glass across the country and I believe it will continue to be that way.”

Agrella, who served as president of Santa Rosa Community College for 22 years, isn’t opposed to tough standards, but is concerned that the federal pressure has led the ACCJC to be more assertive in its handling of City College. “I think if it loses accreditation it lends credence to that, which would be a shame,” he said.

Some California community college leaders say the commission has already gotten more aggressive, and the numbers bear that out. In addition to “show cause,” six of the state’s 112 community colleges are on probation, the mid-level sanction, and 13 are on the least-severe warning status, including Santa Barbara City College, which earlier this month won the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

A study by the RP Group, which conducts research on behalf of California community colleges, found that 14 percent of colleges under ACCJC were given sanctions, compared to between 1 percent and 3 percent of colleges overseen by other large regional commissions.

Barbara Beno, president of the ACCJC, wouldn’t speak directly about City College, but acknowledged that the commission feels pressure from above – and below. “We go to Washington and we’re hit for being too soft and here we’re hit for being too hard,” she said.

Peer pressure

San Mateo Community College District Chancellor Ron Galatolo says the accreditation commission moved too quickly to put City College of San Francisco on the most severe sanction.  Photo: SMCCC.  (Click to enlarge).

San Mateo Community College District Chancellor Ron Galatolo says the accreditation commission moved too quickly to put City College of San Francisco on the most severe sanction. Credit: SMCCD. (Click to enlarge)

Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District, finds that argument specious. He says the ACCJC is using the federal government as an excuse to be heavy-handed. Galatolo, whose district might be called upon to help take over management of City College if its accreditation is pulled, said the commission has been unreasonably harsh for the last few years and that its actions against CCSF are destroying the college’s reputation and diverting it from the important work of trying to improve.

“I’m not saying that City College didn’t deserve to be looked at carefully,” Galatolo said. “I’m not saying that City College doesn’t need help and doesn’t need to be picked up by its britches. But this wasn’t the way to do it.”

“Show cause” should be the last resort, Galatolo said. Before imposing that on a college, the accrediting commission should send in a team from model campuses to work with college administrators and faculty to help them get on track and, he said, it should be made very clear to the college that failure to accept and work with the team will land them in big trouble.

But California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris said colleges aren’t being asked to meet a set of measures handed down from outsiders; they’re developed at home. “I think it’s really important to understand that the American system of accreditation is a peer review process,” Harris said. “So we create the standards that we have to live up to. It’s not a matter of the commission ‘cracking down.’ These are the standards you have set for yourself and you’re meeting them or you’re not.”

Still, Harris has established a task force on accreditation whose primary charge is to establish more transparency in the accreditation process and get the ACCJC and colleges to understand each others’ challenges. The task force is scheduled to report back to the chancellor in August.

Before then, City College of San Francisco will know its fate. The college submitted its final report to the accrediting commission March 15, describing what’s fixed and what still needs work. The accrediting commission will send a team to the college within the next few weeks to make sure the report matches reality. College representatives will have an opportunity to go before the commission at its June meeting and by July 7, the commission will announce its decision.

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